Birds of Winter by Steve Volkening
The Boundary Waters area is home to several hundred species of birds.
During the summer our woods and lakes seem to come alive with the sights
and sounds of these feathery friends. Yet, many of these species are not
year-round residents. Like you and all of the canoeists, campers,
hikers, and resort guests, they are just visitors. These birds come to
the Boundary Waters to feed and raise their young. But when winter
approaches, they take to the skies for warmer climates!
After all, it's not easy to survive the frigid below-zero
temperatures, and long winters, of northern Minnesota and southern
Ontario. But some birds do like to stay. These hardy year-round
residents not only survive, but they seem to thrive in this seemingly
Why do some birds remain in the northern forests while others migrate
south? By looking at four species commonly found in the Boundary Waters
- the Canada Jay, Pileated Woodpecker, Common Loon, and Bald Eagle - we
can begin to understand how birds' adaptations to their environment help
determine whether they remain all year or become the snow-birds of the
Let's look first at two species which remain in the Boundary Waters
The CANADA (GRAY) JAY--Perisoreus Canadensis
Nicknamed the ''Camp Robber'' or ''Whiskey Jack'', the Canadian Jay
is well known to most people who spend any time in our northern forests.
At 10-13 inches long, it is slightly larger than a robin and is gray on
its upper body and white on the lower part. With its white forehead and
throat, and black patch on the back of its head, the Canadian Jay looks
like a giant chickadee. It does lack the crest on its head found on
other jay species, however.
Canadian Jays are quite common in northern forests from Alaska, and
east to Labrador, and usually nest in conifer (pine) trees. Whiskey
Jacks are very tame and are frequently found hanging around resorts and
campgrounds. They have been known to go so far as to enter tents and
steal food from unsuspecting campers. They will also land on your plate
and take pieces of food right in front of you. They have truly earned
their other nickname of ''Camp Robber''.
Canada Jays are members of the Corvidae family, which also includes
crows and ravens, magpies, and other jay species (such as Blue Jay,
Steller's Jay, and Pinyon Jay). Like all corvid's, they have a sturdy
bill, which enables them to eat almost anything they come across. They
eat carrion (dead animals), eggs and young of other birds, fruit,
insects, fruits, and seeds. Just as Blue Jays are fond of acorns, and
Pinyon Jays feed primarily on pinyon nuts, Canada Jays depend upon the
seeds of pine cones in order to survive.
During the long, harsh winter, these conifer seeds make up most of
the Jays' diet. They actually glue together masses of these seeds with
their thick saliva and then cache them. That is, they store them away
for later use. This winter survival tactic of caching is also practiced
by ravens and other jay species. Studies have shown that corvids have
remarkable memories. They have an uncanny ability to locate the vast
majority of their cached food supply. Still, they don't find every seed
they bury and, in this way, they unwittingly help replant the pines they
This behavioral adaptation of caching pine seeds, and their highly
developed memory which enables them to find their caches, are the Canada
Jays' key to winter survival in the Boundary Waters region. The deep
snow would otherwise cover all of the pinecones and make it impossible
to find adequate food supplies.
The PILEATED WOODPECKER--Dryocupus Pileatus
A variety of woodpecker species call the Boundary Waters their home.
Downey, Black-Backed, Three-Toed, and the Northern Flicker can be seen,
and heard, tap-tapping on trees throughout the region. Without a doubt,
the most spectacular of these various woodpeckers is the red-headed
At 17 inches long, and with a 30 inch wingspan, the Pileated is by
far the largest woodpecker in North America. It is nearly the same size
as a crow and are almost entirely black with white neck stripes and
white wing linings. Both sexes have the distinctive bright red head and
a ''mustache'' which is red on the males and black on the females.
These beautiful birds live in the eastern half of the United States
and southern Canada. They prefer dense, mature forests, but seem to have
adjusted to human encroachment quite well. They are tolerant of
disturbed habitat, and are often seen around parks, campgrounds, and
Pileateds are often heard long before they are seen. You may have
heard their slow, noisy hammering and loud ringing call. You might have
seen the large rectangular holes in trees and logs which these Pileated
woodpeckers excavate with their beaks. Pileateds have been nicknamed ''logcock''
because it is frequently seen on the ground using its large beak to
probe fallen logs and stumps for carpenter ants.
Like all woodpecker species, Pileateds have evolved unique physical
characteristics which enable them to exploit food resources largely
untapped by most other species. They are able to search the bark,
branches, and trunks of trees for food other birds can't reach. Their
most obvious adaptation is their sharp, chisel-like beak which enables
them to search for food and to excavate its nest cavity, too. Their
strong beak is specially mounted on its skull and cushioned to withstand
the stresses of repeated hammering. They also have strongly develpoed
neck muscles to drive their beak repeatedly into the wood.
Two other adaptations give woodpeckers a stable working platform
which assists them in hammering away at a tree. Their arrangement of two
front-facing and two-rear facing toes help them get a good grip on tree
bark. Many other birds have three forward-facing and one rear-facing
toes. This works great for perching, but won't help them hang on the
side of a tree. And the Pileated's stiff tail feathers, strengthened by
tough quills, are also strong enough to provide support and balance.
A woodpecker's tongue is amazing. It is very elastic and up to four
times as long as its beak. It is mounted on elastic tissue and flexible
bone which passes in two strips around the back of the skull and then
over the tip of the head. It is anchored near its nostril. This
spring-like device enables the woodpecker to extend and retract its
tongue in the tunnels of wood-eating insects. A backward pointed barb on
the tip of the tongue harpoons the grubs and insects and pulls them out
as the tongue springs back into its mouth.
Pileateds and other woodpeckers use the same food gathering
techniques in winter that they do in the summer. They don't have to
compete for scarce food resources with other bird species which lack
their beak and are unable to hammer away at insects hidden under the
surface of the wood. Woodpeckers simply continue to chip out their daily
meals. Pileateds will also scavenge carrion from road kills and
winter-killed game. Around towns, Pileateds will also visit backyard
bird feeders. They are fond of suet, peanuts, and cracked corn and the
sight of a Pileated Woodpecker at a feeder is a birdwatcher's dream come
Now for two well known Boundary Waters birds which cope with the
brutal winters by heading south.
The COMMON LOON--Gavia Immer
Loons are without a doubt the most widely recognized bird of the
northern lakes. It's nearly impossible to enter any gift shop in Ely,
Grand Marais, or along the North shore without being deluged by images
of loons. There are loon post cards, refrigerator magnets, coffee mugs,
T-shirts, stuffed animals, and some rather outstanding photographs of
loons and their chicks.
A large, heavy-billed bird, loons are about 28-36 inches long. They
have a black head and neck, with a striking white necklace on their
throat. Their black body has white spots and its most notable feature is
a ruby-red eyeball. Minnesota loons weigh about 7-9 pounds, while loons
in New England can weigh up to 12 pounds.
Loons are members of the oldest surviving bird family on earth.
Fossils reveal loons existed 40 to 50 million years ago. That is why
loons appear first in field guides as the oldest and most primitive
order. Today, Common Loons are found in Alaska, Canada, and the northern
lakes in the U.S.
Because of their large webbed feet, and heavy bones, loons are great
swimmers and divers and are sometimes referred to as ''feathered fish''.
Unlike penguins, which actually fly underwater with their flipper-like
wings, loons propel themselves under water with their feet. Their usual
dive lasts for about 45 seconds, although when startled, they can remain
submerged for 5 to 10 minutes!
A loon's body was designed for swimming as its legs are located far
back on its body for greater propulsion while swimming. However, this
makes it nearly impossible to walk and is why loons build their nests
only a few inches from the water's edge.
The sight of loons flying overhead brings a smile to the face of
visitors to the Boundary Waters. However, flying isn't easy for them.
Most birds have very lightweight bones, which makes flying easier. The
bones of a loon are dense however, which helps them submerge, but makes
flying considerably more difficult. To become airborne, they must run
across the surface of the water for up to a quarter mile. When flying,
they hold their head and neck lower than their body. Once underway, they
are strong flyers and fly at speeds of 80 mph. Ducks, on the other hand,
average only 45-60 mph.
Most of a loon's diet consists of small fish, such as perch, suckers,
sunfish, and minnows but they also eat some frogs and leeches. They
require clear water in order to locate and capture their prey. Since
they can't remain on the frozen lakes, they migrate south in late fall
to the open water along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. During the winter
spent on the ocean, loons eat rock cod, flounder, herring, and sea
trout. Loons, and other seabirds, have a special salt gland behind their
eyes. Salt from their ocean diet is excreted by this gland into the
loon's nasal cavity, and then it drips off the bill.
It is interesting to note that during this winter vacation at sea,
loons are unusually quiet. They make none of the yodels, wails, or
tremolos that are so familiar to visitors to the Boundary Waters Canoe
In late summer, after their chicks are nearly raised, loons begin to
gather in groups in what is believed to be social preparation for the
upcoming migration. In late autumn, they gather in groups on the larger
lakes and then fly together in large flocks. During this time, before
migration, their beautiful breeding plumage fades to a dull gray. Loons
also lose some of their feathers in the early fall. And then they molt
their wing feathers in late winter when they are on the ocean. It takes
30-45 days to regrow their feathers, during which time they are unable
to fly. Their new breeding plumage appears in March or April.
Common loons return to the northern lakes to establish their breeding
territories as soon as the ice melts. How do loons along the Atlantic
coast know when the ice melts in northern Minnesota? Scientists believe
the increase in daylight, as spring approaches, stimulates the loon's
metabolism and tells them it is time to return. Only the adults return,
however, as the juveniles will remain along the coast for two or three
years. These immature loons keep their gray plumage during this time and
don't obtain their black and white plumage until they become adults and
then head back up north.
The Bald Eagle's Latin name translates into ''sea eagle with white
head.'' And, in this case, ''bald'' means streaked or marked with white
- not naked or featherless like the head of a vulture.
Nearly everyone recognizes the Bald Eagle as our national symbol. It
was officially declared so by the Second Continental Congress in 1782.
It was chosen because it was found only in North America and a native
bird seemed a good choice for a new nation which had just won
independence from English rule. Besides, eagles had been symbols of
power and authority since Roman times. However, Ben Franklin objected to
the choice. He believed the eagle was a bird of ''bad moral character''.
He felt that the wild turkey was more dignified and had more character
in that they didn't rob food from other birds!
Despite Franklin's objections, Bald Eagles are magnificent birds with
a great deal of character indeed. The sight of an eagle swooping down
from its perch to grab a fish is a special thrill for Boundary Waters
visitors. At 30-43 inches long, Bald Eagles have a wingspan of 6-8 feet
and the adults can weigh 8-15 pounds. As with many raptors, females are
larger than males.
It takes immature Bald Eagles 4 years to achieve their adult plumage,
with their white head and tail and dark brown body. Their yellow hooked
beak is designed for tearing apart their prey and their yellow feet are
tipped by strong talons for grabbing and holding their prey. The bottom
of their toes have small spikes to help them grip slippery fish.
Bald Eagles first breed around age five and they usually mate for
life. They are known for their spectacular courtship flight where the
male dives at the females and sometimes they lock talons in midair and
tumble towards the ground.
Eagles build their nests in tall trees near the water, usually 50-125
feet up. Eagle nests are huge structures and can be 7 to 8 feet across
and 12 feet deep, weighing as much as two tons. They are lined with
moss, grass, pine needles, and feathers. Since new sticks are added each
year, they sometimes become so heavy they damage the tree and fall to
the ground. The female lays 1-3 eggs, which hatch in 35-40 days. The
eaglets grow quickly and fledge (fly) 72-75 days after hatching.
When it comes to finding food, Bald Eagles are sometimes hunters,
sometimes scavengers; but they are always opportunistic. They need up to
a pound and a half of meat each day and even more in the winter to
furnish energy to stay warm. Their hunting territory is two to three
square miles, depending upon how much food is available.
Fish make up over 50% of an eagle's diet. They take salmon, trout,
pike, carp, and catfish. They have extremely keen eyesight and can see
for up to two miles. They often perch in a tree next to a lake or stream
for hours waiting for a fish to come into view. While they fly at speeds
of 50-75 mph, eagles can reach 150-200 mph during a dive to capture
their dinner. They swoop down over the water and grab a fish in their
talons but don't plunge below the surface like a pelican or osprey. When
spawning salmon are abundant, they will sometimes wade in shallow
streams to pursue fish.
The feeding habits of Bald Eagles are far from majestic, a trait
which upset Franklin even further. They harass osprey and gulls, forcing
them to drop their fish, and steal meals from other birds. When fish are
scarce, Bald Eagles will capture waterfowl such as ducks, coots, and
shorebirds. Bird species make up a quarter of the Bald Eagle's diet.
Mammals, such as rabbits, squirrels, and muskrats, account for 10-15% of
their diet. The remaining percentage of their diet consists of turtles,
crabs, and shellfish. Ever the opportunist, eagles also eat carrion and
dead fish. Many people who fish the Boundary Waters know eagles will
gladly dispose of fish heads and fish guts left on a rock outside camp.
Despite their distinction as the national symbol, Bald Eagles nearly
became extinct more than once. Due to destruction of their habitat,
hunting, and the devastating effects of DDT, their numbers fell
dangerously low. Hunters were once paid a bounty to kill eagles in an
effort to protect salmon. Before it was outlawed in 1940, hunters in
Alaska alone killed over 100,000 eagles.
It was DDT, however, which nearly wiped out the Bald Eagle. In the
years after WWII, DDT was used widely as an insecticide. It was
inexpensive, effective, and didn't harm plants. For 20 years, it played
havoc with eagles. It didn't kill them immediately but produced problems
with their reproductive cycle. DDT became concentrated in the fish that
eagles ate and consequently built up in the eagle's tissues causing
reduced calcium formation vital for their eggshells. The shells became
so thin that they broke during incubation. DDT also caused eagles to
become infertile or produce deformed embryos. By 1962, scientists
discovered that less than half of nesting eagle pairs produced any live
young and fewer than 500 breeding pairs survived in the Lower
forty-eight states. Canada outlawed DDT in 1970 and the US followed in
The Bald Eagle was placed on the Endangered Species list in 1973.
Actually, it was listed as endangered in just 43 of the Lower 48 states.
It was just listed as threatened in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan,
Oregon, and Washington. A major effort to save the Bald Eagle succeeded.
and eagle populations have rebounded to the point where it was
downlisted from endangered to threatened in 1995. Happily, in 2000, it
was ''delisted'', meaning it was no longer considered threatened. Today,
there are about 100,000 Bald Eagles in North America and Minnesota alone
had 618 nesting pairs in 1998.
Just like loons, Bald Eagles don't spend all year in the Boundary
Waters. With the coming of fall, they begin to move to warmer regions in
search of food. When the northern lakes freeze, they are unable to find
fish. In addition, waterfowl migrate south and other food sources
hibernate. Eagles which nest in the interior of Canada and northern
Minnesota have to head south to survive. Many migrate along the
Mississippi River or follow the shoreline of Lake Superior and Lake
Michigan into the lower Midwest. As a result, the wintering population
of Bald Eagles in Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, and Missouri is ten times
higher than its nesting population.
These wintering eagles tend to congregate around rivers where locks
and dams provide good fishing. There, the water remains open even when
the rest of the river freezes. Fish injured going through the dam's
turbines attract large number of Bald Eagles. They can also be found at
warm water discharge lakes around power stations. Wildlife sanctuaries
which provide refuge for wintering waterfowl also attract Bald Eagles.
Biologists have been able to track migrating eagles with radio
transmitters. They have learned that eagles choose their fall migration
routes to take advantage of thermals, updrafts, and food supplies along
the way. During the fall, they tend to migrate slowly and may cover as
few as 20 miles in a day and feed in a particular area for up to a week
before moving further south. On their spring migration back north,
eagles use a more direct flight. They can fly as far as 200 miles in a
day. Just like human visitors to the Boundary Waters, Bald Eagles are
anxious to get back Up North in the spring.
Birds have inhabited the Boundary Waters for millions of years. They
have evolved and adapted to the climate and landscape of the region.
Some have opted to remain all year and face the long and bitter winters.
Others, instead, face the dangers of a migration to warmer areas. In
either case, they will be there awaiting the tourists return. The next
time you see a Canadian Jay, woodpecker, loon, or Bald Eagle think for a
moment about their struggles to survive while you were away this winter.
Perhaps you will have even a greater appreciation for these hardy
Boundary Waters birds.